Genius Hour isn’t a new concept. Schools take roughly an hour and allow students to work on something they really want to work on. It may be easier to do this in elementary schools than middle or high schools, when students are taking so many classes, where do you find the time?

Some schools have incorporated time into their schedule for a Genius Hour by means of a flex period. Maybe it really is a whole hour every day, or maybe it’s 30 or 40 minutes, just a few days a week. But what if a school really did make a drastic shift where 20% of their time was dedicated to flexible, independent learning? And what if that just happened to click into Project-Based Learning, at a school where the courses were STEM-focused and career-based?

Well that’s exactly what you’ll hear about in the very first episode of our new podcast, Reimagining Time. We’ll be releasing episodes every two weeks that will feature stories from educators who have used their imagination to rethink how they use time to better support and enrich students.

In this episode, Genius Hour, Reinvented, we speak with Scott Rains and Kelly Musgrove, formerly of a STEM Institute in Georgia. They talk about how they this Genius Hour idea and expanded on it, how they made it work in their schedule, how they hold students accountable in this kind of learning environment, how it fits in with PBL, and the incredible things this has enabled students to do. You can find this episode anywhere you get your podcasts, or listen below.

Read some highlights of the episode below.

Enriching Students: This unusual approach meant a shift in mindset. How did this time period fit in to the project-based learning environment?

Scott Rains: And so, the teachers that are really understanding and utilizing the model to its fullest, they understand that the first part of that week is dedicated to building for their flex day. So Ms. Musgrove may be able to take Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday to talk about hey, here’s body systems, here’s what you’re learning about in biotech, this is how these things overlap; this is your project, I want you to use your flex time on Thursday to do that.

Enriching Students: Besides just giving students this time to work, they also gave students the opportunity to make decisions about, and actually schedule where they wanted to go during these flex days. To some schools, that might seem like it’s giving students a little too much trust, but in reality it actually helps them build important skills like time management.

Scott Rains: I know that a lot of other folks like to have an advisement period time to schedule, but this really goes to the core of what we believe is most effective for students in building that time management and project management. When they go off to college or career, whatever it is that they go to do, they’re ready. They don’t have to worry about how to manage an A/B or an alternating college schedule because they’ve already done it with us. They don’t have to worry about how to manage, you know, multiple deadlines at a career, because we’ve already with the cross-curricular projects that are from one class to another or the year-long projects which span multiple months. They know how to manage all of those different aspects.

Enriching Students: With such a unique schedule and so much freedom given to students, what about that accountability piece? How do teachers ensure that students are really engaged during the flex day, especially when they’re working on an independent project? Kelly Musgrove, who was an ELA teacher and school leader at the STEM institute, talks about some things to look for to assess whether or not a student is really actively learning.

Kelly Musgrove: Very specifically, we are asked to walk around the classroom to make sure that students are on task. If I find that there is an occasion where the student is off-task, I will always tell him or her, ‘Listen, I need for you to really be able to explain what you’re working on and why you’re doing the things that you’re doing in this particular location. So right now, I don’t have a full understanding of what you’re trying to study or what you’re trying to accomplish. So I’m going to go around again, and then the next time I’m going to turn and I’ll come back to you and then I need for you to give me a better explanation of what you’re working on and why you’re working on it and I really need for you to provide for me some details so that I know that you’re not just looking at something or listening to something, that I know that there’s really valid research going on.

Scott Rains: In their course of the conversation, you can determine a student’s level of understanding based on the words that they’re using. So the teacher’s looking for and listening for especially vocabulary that’s specific to what that student is learning about. And if the student is unable to give anything more than vague, general responses, then that’s a key indicator for that teacher that the student is not really on task, they’re just more looking to provide an answer without actually giving information.

Enriching Students: Those conversations are key to making self-directed learning a success. And that’s so important at a school where kids are working on independent projects, and need to be held accountable without being micromanaged. When you look at their overall model — about 20% of the school week is dedicated to this ‘Flex Day’ idea, where students have the freedom to take a deep dive into a project. Which, might remind you of something….the 80/20 approach used by Google.

Scott Rains: That is exactly what our model is based off of. When we started researching how best to engage our students in looking for ways to enrich learning, we looked at Google, that’s exactly where we started. We said if they’re a multi-billion company and they’re being successful at what they do, maybe there’s something we can take from their business model and incorporate that in an educational model. The Genius Hour is something that people are probably familiar with, it’s been around for a while, but we just kind of took Genius Hour and put it on steroids.

Enriching Students: The skills students gain with this program leave them well-prepared, regardless of their path after high school. In fact, a lot of these students are already working in their field while still in high school.

Scott Rains: We have a lot of feedback from local business and industry that are around us that, I mean, we have people that seek out to come over here to work with our kids, because when they hear about the projects that they’re working on, the things that they’re doing, the local businesses and industry want to get involved because they see what’s available to them. As a matter of fact, when our kids are doing internships and work-based learning opportunities, they’re not just a typical employee there, they are leading in their area.

Enriching Students: This just goes to show what students are able to accomplish when given the time, tools, and opportunities to pursue their passions. And, we’ve hinted that students at this school have been able to do some amazing things. Here’s an example we thought was worth sharing.

Scott Rains: We have a local brake pad manufacturer by the name of Nisshiinbo. They produce pretty much all the brake pads that are manufactured here in the U.S. And so one of the things that we’ve done is we partner with them and so our kids can go over there beginning in the eleventh grade and start working. And it’s full time. It’s not a full-time job but they get full pay. So they’re earning a wage and they’re working on the different departments. So we have one kid that’s in the IT Department, we have another kid that’s in Quality Assurance. As a matter of fact the one that’s in the IT Department, his job was to 3D model using a software that we taught him here in our program. He has 3D modeled 97% of all the brake pads that this company manufactures. And so he’s done that, that’s a high school kids. And he’s so well accomplished that they recognized him as a leader and he actually has a team that reports to him. This is an eighteen-year-old student, that’s in high school, that has a team of 5 members that work there full time at that company, and they report to him. (break here) So there’s some really unique and unbelievably incredible opportunities that these kids have.